DRAWN & QUARTERED
COURTESY FANTA-GRAPHICS BOOKS
Milton Caniff died in 1988. His comic strip "Steve Canyon" continued for a month or two before the syndicate pulled it. No one else could create it like Caniff.
Canon of ‘Steve Canyon’
The other night I asked my father -- who flew in the Air Force for three decades and has religiously read the daily comic strips for eight decades -- what he thought of Milt Caniff's "Steve Canyon."
"Well," he said after thinking about it. "It wasn't the real Air Force. But it was real enough. It was the Air Force the way we wished it was."
And so. Caniff was not just a masterful storyteller and creator of memorable characters, not just an incredible artist whose chiaroscuro black washes and attention to realistic detail didn't sludge away his visual fireworks, not just an icon and mentor of the comics industry -- Caniff was a guy who created classical mythology out of the American dream and sold it back to us.
He created greatness out of ink and paper and imagination.
When Caniff died in 1988, "Steve Canyon" wobbled along on autopilot for a month or two before the syndicate pulled the ripcord. No one but Caniff could create it, and since it was story-driven and colored by the headlines of the period, it could not be easily reprised.
That and Caniff's earlier strip, "Terry and the Pirates," pretty much evaporated from pop consciousness, like the Cold War and cigarettes. But Caniff's effect on popular culture remains, like a hidden core of mischievous adventurism that defines the American psyche. Or at least the way we like to think of ourselves. It's hard to imagine Indiana Jones without Terry and the Pirates, impossible to consider the Marvel "revolution" in comic book scripting without the adult sensibilities of Steve Canyon.
Do you remember Milt Caniff? He started out as a rather generic illustrator for a newspaper syndicate, moved on to helping out on boy-adventure strips like "Dickie Dare" and influenced by "Scorchy Smith," then created his own "Terry and the Pirates," an adolescent strip that, in its first year, suddenly blossomed into a daily must-read, peopled by memorable characters like two-fisted Pat Ryan; Burma, the lady with a shady past; and Dragon Lady, beautiful, exotic and dangerous. It was like Caniff was drawing lightning from the ink bottle, creating cartoon people whose character development was goosed by the high-voltage plots. Unlike the stasis most comic characters live in, such storytelling is a classic arc of traditional drama. It's literature.
The boy Terry grew up to become a fighter pilot during World War II -- Caniff pretty much invented the airplane nose-art genre along the way -- but as the war wound down, Caniff was offered a deal he couldn't refuse, a chance to own his own strip.
He walked away from "Terry and the Pirates" in 1947 and created "Steve Canyon." At the time, this was groundbreaking entertainment news.
ALL THIS is bubbling up because the Checker publishing company is methodically reprinting "Steve Canyon," a year at a time -- great to read and absorb well-reproduced example of drawing genius, you bet -- but mainly because R. C. Harvey's long-awaited biography of Caniff has finally hit the shelves. And when we say "hit the shelves," it ain't a metaphor.
"Meanwhile ...: A Biography of Milton Caniff" (Fantagraphics Books, 932 pages., $34.95) is a massive cinderblock of a book, nearly as inclusive and obsessive as Richard Lupoff's "Edgar Rice Burroughs, Master of Adventure." But hey, there are a pile of bios of Maxfield Parrish, and Caniff's contributions to the modern zeitgeist are no less notable.
And "long-awaited" is no stretch either. Harvey, columnist for The Comics Journal, biographer of "Gordo" creator Gus Arriola, and "Dennis the Menace" essayist, started working on this authorized bio while Caniff was still alive, and Caniff fact-checked many chapters. In other words, it's definitive, authoritative, chockablock with fascinating detail, but a little thin on juice. Caniff emerges as a workaholic writer and artist -- ink stained right up to his death -- and a wry observer of current events and pop culture, but not really a tortured soul or media vulture. Nope. Like most cartoonists, he lived out of the boundless stretches of his imagination.
But what the book really illuminates is the way the daily "cartoon" strip became a touchstone for several generations, particularly in the days before easily accessible mass media. The daily flashes of an adventurous storyline, told with style and wit and a certain amount of artistic flair, were like vitamin pills for the imagination. Caniff's casual, pragmatic American boosterism also helped feed our public conception of ourselves as the world's good-natured technocrats and social engineers. One of his strips was actually read into the Congressional Record. A comic strip, mind you.
Times have changed. When was the last time you looked forward to reading a daily comic strip, and for those brief moments, were actually transported?
Milton Caniff was one of a kind.